(Photo by Zoey Maraist / The Arlington Catholic Herald; design by Matt Fletcher)
When Larry Hammel ’57 started leading marriage retreats with his wife, Marianne, his entire concept of God changed.
“God became real flesh and blood, rather than an intellectual concept of God ‘over there,’ who is above everything,” he says. “If you realize that marriage is a sacrament, if you want to love God, you have to love your spouse. If you love your spouse, you are loving God.”
It was a pivotal moment in Hammel’s faith life, a time during which he says he learned that loving others is an encounter with God. This realization led him on the path to ordination as a permanent deacon, and is central to the work he does today, ministering to inmates in prisons in northern Virginia.
As he and Marianne continued to lead Worldwide Marriage Encounter weekends for a decade, Hammel—a transportation planning engineer during the work week—felt called to demonstrate his love of God in a new way. He applied to become a deacon in 1981 and was ordained in 1984, serving in two parishes on his native Long Island for 16 years.
When he and Marianne relocated to northern Virginia in 2000 to live closer to their four grown children and eight grandchildren, Hammel was assigned to a parish near the county jail, and had his first experience with ministering to prisoners.
Now retired from engineering and devoted full-time to his service as a deacon, Hammel leads a team of 57 volunteers in prison ministry, sponsored by Catholic Charities. The group comes from 16 parishes across northern Virginia to the Loudoun Adult Detention Center in Leesburg, where they lead inmates in Scripture readings and discussion each Sunday. Hammel’s group rotates so that each Sunday is covered, and they aren’t usually all there at once. Of the nearly 500 inmates in the detention center, there are usually about 50 at the Sunday Scripture services.
“We ask the men and women, ‘How are the Scriptures alive to you? If you’re struggling today, how do the Scriptures give you hope?’” says Hammel, who also offers the sacraments to Catholic inmates alongside a retired priest who is part of the group. “It’s not intellectual stuff, it’s heart stuff.”
Down the road from the adult detention center is a juvenile detention center that the group visits on the third Saturday of each month. Hammel says that the group isn’t going into these detention centers to convert people to Catholicism, but rather to evangelize or re-evangelize the inmates.
“You just listen to people, be present to them. Some have no visitors—they may not be from this area, but their offense was here, so it is where they are held,” he says. “The purpose is not to make Roman Catholics of the inmates. That’s up to the Holy Spirit.”
In addition to the prison ministry, Hammel also visits patients at the adult mental health unit at INOVA Loudoun Hospital in Leesburg. “You go in, you listen to people, and there’s brokenness there,” he says. “You don’t solve their problems, but they know that someone in ministry cares.” He is also assigned to a rural parish in the neighboring Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston in West Virginia.
Being in solidarity with others in difficult times has been a theme of Hammel’s ministry since his early days as a deacon, when he served in the AIDS unit of a hospital in the 1990s, when there were still many unknowns and fears about the disease. For Hammel, the lay people that he volunteers with and the patients and prisoners they serve are the heart of today’s Catholic Church.
“The prisoners remind us that all of us, like Mother Teresa said, are the body of Christ,” he says. “We are Christ’s presence in the world today, in spite of our being broken, in spite of our sinfulness.
“My joy is to see these 57 people on the team be so immersed in prison ministry that it becomes part of their blood not just to continue prison ministry, but to proclaim the Gospel by the way that they live, whether it’s sharing with their families or in the community or at the office. Making Jesus not something intellectual, but something from the heart.”